Climate change. How do we lead the Blind?

by David Shearman, Hon Secretary, Doctors for the Environment Australia.

This article was published in The Independent Weekly on June 24, 2006 This is a SA publication with a circulation of 39,000

“The reality is that climate change of the order and time frames predicted by climate scientists poses fundamental questions of human security, survival and the stability of nation states which necessitate judgments about political and strategic risk as well as economic cost.”

This an introductory statement from a collaborative paper “Heating up the Planet; Climate Change and Security” from the Lowy Institute for International Policy written by Alan Dupont, Senior Fellow for International Security at the Institute and Graeme Pearman, former Chief of Atmospheric Research at the CSIRO.

There are several reasons for framing a report in this way.

Firstly the obvious; evidence suggests that we should be deeply concerned by the increasing rate of accumulation of CO2 that is being translated into global physical changes. This concern now extends to the contribution from threshold events which are mechanisms that will bring irreversible changes in oceans and climate. These mechanisms are the release of vast stores of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost in the Arctic, the melting of the arctic ice cap with the loss of its reflective capacity, and the slowing of the Gulf Stream. All these events are being measured and are progressive. Furthermore, the oceans are becoming warmer and more acid and it is possible that they will reverse their storage of CO2 role.

Secondly, security and stability are major concerns of government, which are sure to attract attention when the strictures and warnings of hundreds of scientists and perhaps thousands of Greenies can be sidelined as environmental and not main stream. Thus the orientation of this report is important.

Recommendation 1
“The federal government should encourage a more strategic approach to climate change and establish an interdepartmental task force to examine the policy connections between climate change and national security, with particular reference to the nation’s food, water, energy, health and environmental vulnerabilities, disaster planning and unregulated population movements”

There is little new in the science in the past 20 years, only certainty has increased. But the responses in the two decades have but scratched the surface of the problem. Oh that we could retrieve these 20 years. The Lowy report reflects the failure of governments to address the issue as an environmental one and so recommends that it be re-categorised.

Governments are failing to control greenhouse emissions for two fundamental reasons.

Firstly the source of emissions is too difficult to curb. Australian Greenhouse Office figures show that 50% of Australian emissions come from stationary energy i.e. power stations, 13% from transport and 16% from agriculture. All are increasing. On stationary energy this government has opted to hope for the technological development of clean coal. What is needed are drastic conservation methods and incentives for alternative energy now. With transport, major investment in public transport is needed. It does not exist. The agricultural component is due to livestock and the greenhouse furnace in the guts of animals; this is a worldwide problem of affluence and the improvement in living standards which creates a demand for meat as a source of calories. Successful curbing of these emissions would need a dramatic change in lifestyle. Can we be separated from our cars, steak and some of our consumables? The “political” answer is no.

Thus there are other inviolate sources of greenhouse emissions that will continue to grow because of the lifestyle we demand. The fastest growth in global emissions is from air travel. These emissions at high altitude accompanied by water vapour have a greater effect than their weight would suggest. Air-lines account for 3% of global emissions and this form of travel is increasing at 7% per year. In India and China hundreds of airports are being constructed. In Europe where one can travel between countries on loss leader fares of $1, the European Union earnestly discusses the problem of aircraft emissions but accepts that no solution is within sight in a market economy wedded to every individual freedom.

But the ultimate inviolate source is the growth economy that in today’s paradigm utilizes growth to infinity for its stability and function.

Secondly, the nature of politics. We have to be realistic; the picture was painted by the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott with the metaphor of how in politics we sail a boundless ocean, we have no destination, there are no harbors to put in, and basically the object of politics is to keep the boat afloat. Of course to survive in the boat the occupants must satisfy the needs of Plato’s “savage beast”, the electorate. In the here and now it does not matter too much if the sea level has risen by two meters (unless the island destination has been inundated). Governance systems have yet to demonstrate that they can undertake measures to mitigate this impending problem. A first step would be the recognition that the Lowy report is an important first step but more essential is leadership of a caliber sufficient to make this an urgent national priority. This leadership needs to recruit other national leaders and to convince the populace of necessary changes. As I write these thoughts, sections of society are calling for reductions in fuel tax and I note the treasurers increasing fares on public transport. The impending crisis tells us that we need a slow progressive increase in the price of petrol to reduce consumption and free public transport to attract people away from cars. Even in our wealthy society Plato’s “savage beast” is still fighting for the spoils to the detriment of their grandchildren. The beast and its representatives do not yet recognize that there is now conflict between liberalism and survival.

Let us then return to the security issue and commend Alan Dupont and Graeme Pearman and for climbing the first step in understanding and conclude with two of their recommendations

Recommendation 6
“The most effective way of ameliorating the security risk of prospective climate change is to reduce the level of greenhouse gases that are responsible for heating up the planet”

Recommendation 3
“Good policy assumes the ability to conceptualise the problem of climate change in its entirety rather than in a compartmentalized way. Governments—federal, state and local—need to think about better ways of growing the intellectual resources to develop this capacity”